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Anthropology in Customer Service

Published onDec 08, 2023
Anthropology in Customer Service

I remember staring at the small flip phone on my desk early in the mornings in Seattle and working up the courage to press the digits to make calls to the east coast, where business hours were just starting. As an incredibly shy freshman at the University of Washington, my friends warned me that the student paper advertisement seeking a customer service assistant for a small lumber trading company sounded like a scam. They jokingly called me a lumberjack when it turned out to be legitimate and the small company, run by a UW professor and his grad student, hired me to make calls to advertise a subscription-only forum for buying and selling lumber and to update customers’ expired credit card information for their subscriptions. It was not glamorous work, but I reflect warmly on how the three of us who comprised the company would meet for coffee and doughnuts early on Friday mornings once a month. I mostly contributed to the small business by making calls to the east coast of the US and Canada before my 8am classes from my impossibly tiny studio apartment in the U-District. I also took a software program training course paid for through the company that went way over my head at the time, vowing to stay away from work that required such programs in the future. This job was my introduction to small businesses, the Pacific Northwest, and connections to lumber and forestry economies while also learning basic customer service and telephone communication skills. More importantly, I had a taste of freedom from saving my own money.

Throughout college I held a collection of odd jobs. Apart from two terms studying abroad, like most of my friends I always had at least two to three jobs during the school year and summers. However, I was raised in a middle-class family and my parents had years of experience working in higher education. There was a clear expectation while growing up that I would go to a 4-year college. I did not have student debt and my parents gave me money to pay for my below-market rate housing along with a small allowance for groceries. Any money I made, I got to save and spend as I saw fit—an extremely privileged position to be in as a college student in the United States. My work experience, such as where I worked and how often, was a choice I made and could unmake, unlike some friends who worked to pay education loans, cover their cost of living, or support families. This privilege shaped the work opportunities I pursued because it allowed me to spend a significant amount of time and money traveling during my undergraduate career.

I worked in retail for a while, because right out of high school I found that I only had skills and social capital to get retail or food service jobs. As a cripplingly shy person, both options scared me but working the closing shifts in the children’s section of a large department store scared me less than closing shifts at a restaurant or bar. Around this time, I also started babysitting for a few families who had well-behaved children and paid well. As with many babysitting gigs, they did not guarantee regular hours and their requests would come and go. I also think about the jobs I did not get. I was never called back by a law firm looking to fill a summer internship position that I was encouraged to apply for by my hairdresser, who also cut the hair of one of the firm’s lawyers. In Seattle, jobs in bookshops, cafes, or in any of the eleven campus libraries were coveted and competitive positions that my numerous applications never secured any interviews for. Of the many other jobs I did get, I never felt any of them were particularly strong stepping-stones for a future career I wanted. I generally kept jobs for the length of a school quarter to earn spending money and I would search for new short-term employment every fall and spring after studying abroad or spending summers at home, relaxing and working, in California.

As an Anthropology major and Spanish minor, I took an opportunity in my sophomore year to study abroad to learn Spanish in Mexico. After returning to Seattle for the next term, I found jobs so I could pay to continue traveling and learning languages. One of these jobs, in-line with my interests and areas of study, was working as an office assistant for a small study abroad company based out of downtown Seattle. My co-workers were friendly recent college graduates with interpersonal issues. From this job I learned that good relationships at work make a world of difference and that after you graduate college your problems don’t disappear. Even with my passion for travel, the commute into downtown Seattle by bus to go to work in a beautiful historic building was more inspiring than running the day-to-day office tasks of a travel company. I remember feeling claustrophobic during long hours in the office and realized that I not only never wanted a traditional desk job but also feared having one permanently. Luckily, I was only a temporary hire while their regular office assistant, another UW undergraduate, studied abroad that quarter.

My last jobs as an undergraduate were with the US Census and the events management department at the Husky Union Building, affectionately dubbed the HUB. With the census, I walked through neighborhoods of bungalows and apartments north of the university to approach households who had not submitted a census form by the mail-in deadline. Similar to my customer service cold-calling days, I remember the anxiety of waiting for someone to come to their door to find me gently begging them to fill out the 2010 census form. I was advised by my supervisor to “kill with kindness,” which is a principle I find that I still carry with me today. I also remember being well-supported by my supervisor who was not much older than myself, occasionally using my hard-earned Spanish degree, and feeling confident and ready with responses if any hostile residents opened the door. None ever did, except for a fellow student who was vaguely familiar from a drunken encounter at a friend’s birthday party. After laughing off our mutually foggy recollections, he went on a tirade about big government keeping tabs on residents and not wanting to take part in the census survey. I felt defeated returning the empty form back to my understanding supervisor, who offered to hire me back for the next phase of census work because I “never caused [him] any problems,” in his words.

The other job I held at the same time was setting up tables and audio/visual equipment for events held in the student center. We were always assigned in pairs to set up and tear down rooms reserved for campus events. I could usually coax a colleague into quizzing me for my upcoming GRE during these shifts. I did not have any concrete plans for grad school at the time but knew I would apply in the future which is also how I justified continuing to go in and out of short-term jobs. My thought was that broadening a network within one field or honing a specific set of skills was not important because I was going to go back to school anyway. My job at the HUB was the one position in my four years working through college where I socialized with co-workers outside of work. I saw service workers in a new light after I began emptying trash cans and sweeping floors after events. Both of these jobs gave me much appreciation for entry-level government workers and those who do what is often intended to be invisible labor on college campuses.

In these jobs, I used what I had learned by studying anthropology to evidence that I knew how to conduct interviews, organize information, and listen to and talk with people. A culturally relativistic perspective was also useful in these jobs. It became clear that the parameters of the census could be confusing for people who did not speak English or people who were not US citizens. When coworkers laughed at how a few students from India who were new to working in the HUB did not know how to use a push broom, I shared that brooms were often different in India, something I’d learned from my Indian relatives. I also learned about my own positionality and subjectivity from laboring in each of these roles and the tasks asked of me. I questioned my assumptions that service workers were unskilled, uneducated, and unambitious because I met and worked with people who were exactly the opposite. This also brought about a discomfort in how I could be viewed as a young brown woman. My coworkers at the time either did not know what anthropology was or doubted I would continue in an anthropology career, if they even knew what that would mean. They figured my work would lead to travel and knew I was always looking forward to a trip. Personally, I could feel myself being pulled towards teaching and working with children.

My odd jobs throughout my college career included tutoring, babysitting, and working at an after-school daycare program. I loved working with kids and found that the time passed quickly while I observed how children’s minds processed information. Looking back, these were the experiences that greatly influenced how I sought out my first job after college. International travel and research experience, a minor in Spanish, and experience working with kids in a school setting built the foundation I used to apply to Spain’s Auxiliares de Conversación program or the North American Language and Culture Assistants Program hosted by the Department of Education in Spain. The program brings recent college graduates into Spanish public schools as language teaching assistants. I received a two-year assignment at a small secondary school in the Basque Country. After one year, I was inspired to apply to PhD programs to study linguistic anthropology of education in order to explore what confounded me about language, identity, and learning in the Basque Country classrooms. My current research and teaching on language in education is a direct result of these work experiences.

Overall, my degree in anthropology was a tool kit rather than a clear path into gainful post-undergraduate employment, unlike the disciplines some of my friends chose to study, like business or engineering. It was only much later that I learned how these work experiences honed skills that I brought into other jobs and my graduate studies, like time management, conflict resolution, and communication. As someone who would not be called shy now and loves to talk to people, I think back to that timid college freshman making customer service cold calls on rainy Seattle mornings and wonder how a different set of work experiences might have changed who and how I am today.

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